I am always grateful for the summer and I wondered why. I then take a few breaths, and I remember. In the summer, I have time to feel my breath, coming in and out… As soon as the last school bus leaves, teachers are faced, for the first time in 180 days with the emptiness and the absence from constant busyness. That’s when teachers can truly feel breathing in; taking in energy, instead of only remembering the exhausted sighs out; energy leaving our bodies. We often don’t take the time to notice such a simple yet critical activity like breathing. I have recently come to understand how practicing mindfulness of breath can have a positive impact on education.
This simple awareness of each breath is a big part of a concept in “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is to be aware of the present moment. The mindfulness study started about 30 years ago with the chronic physical pain reduction and management research. After several positive results were proven, mindfulness practices have been implemented into the mental health field as an effective strategy for coping with stress and anxiety. This success has caught the attention of educators. Now, many advocate for practicing mindfulness in our classrooms as tool to help teachers and students deal with the social, emotional, and cognitive challenges that impact many of our students and families.
Over the past few years, I have read research and testimonial articles on mindfulness. I became curious. What is this really all about? What am I supposed to feel when I am mindful? To satisfy my curiosity, I enrolled in the Mindful Fundamental online course (http://www.mindfulschools.org) in the summer 2015. I learned that mindfulness is the act of bringing awareness to any experience just as it is. I was becoming more aware, paying more attention to what I was doing during my new fitness challenge. It was my first experience of mindfulness; to be aware of the present moment, not past nor future. Gradually I became better at noticing my emotion and physical sensations. I realized I had a fear of being judged. Accepting negative emotions like this was difficult at times. Emotion and thoughts are like clouds. Clouds can hover over me at times, though I know they will eventually float away. I began to wonder, what if my students understood this concept? What if my students could accept their emotions and manage them one at a time? What if they learned to be kind to themselves? Would their learning improve? I started visualizing what this might look like in my classroom. My own experience with mindfulness practice built my confidence of sharing mindfulness with my students for the upcoming school year. At the end of the summer, I decided to implement mindfulness in my classroom. I took in a big breath, and started to plan.
On the first day of the school, brand new second grade students excitedly and nervously entered in their classroom. “OK, class, this year you will learn something you have never learned before. It will stick with you from today on. It is called Mindfulness.” I had two students that year who had been identified as having behavioral concerns from their previous teachers. I knew I had some challenges. I was curious about how these students would respond to the practice of mindfulness. I knew I had to help them understand. In front of the class, I held up a clear water bottle filled with ¾ full of water and sparkling glitter on the bottom. “It is your mind.” I shook the bottle. Students eyes were glued on the shining glitter all over the place inside of the bottle. “It is still your mind. But it is called ‘monkey mind.’ Let’s watch it settle.” This visual tool itself clearly explained to my students about the difference between focused and unfocused minds on the first day of their second grade year. It was the first lesson in mindfulness.
From then on, I implemented five minutes of daily mindfulness practice and several weekly mini social emotional related lessons (MindUp) to cultivated my second graders’ mindfulness. Some of the mini lessons included the scientific study of the brain, like what part of brain would respond through mindfulness. Gradually, they started recognizing it as a tool for self-regulation. They began to recognize when they had strong emotion, and how to focus when they were surrounded by distraction. Especially, noticing their own emotion cultivated their compassion among themselves and others. Towards the end of the year, I heard my students engaged in meaningful conversations using the sophisticated vocabulary like “prefrontal cortex” and “neuroplasticity”.
As a routine, my students listened to the five minutes daily guided mindfulness practice program (Smiling Mind http://smilingmind.com.au/) as soon as the school bell rang each morning. During the five minutes, students’ hands were on their bellies to feel their breath coming and going. The practice ended with the tranquil sound of bell…. I witnessed several occasions when students’ intentional breathing attempts, many cases, closing their eyes so that they can block out distractions. The most surprising fact was that the students identified as having behavioral concerns paid attention to their breaths during daily mindfulness practice. Many students wanted to share their success story in the circle time. “I was angry when my friend didn’t play with me. Then I used mindfulness.” “I used mindfulness before math fact practice. I did well.” Using their own words to explain their mindful experiences was a huge accomplishment for second grade students. Students know when they are experiencing strong emotions, they cannot make good choices. As the year went by, students recognize the frustration more quickly in the complicated academic tasks, then they took some breaths. As they found calmness, they self-talked, not to pout but try again to the challenging tasks. Additionally, the significant growth data in my math class was seen from September to May using the district mandated trimester assessments. Interestingly, compared to the last year’s high academic group without mindfulness reinforcement, this year’s group showed more growth than previous year’s group. So why don’t we implement mindfulness in our learning community?
Adults, too, need to be aware of present moment and take care of themselves. Mindful adults create a mindful atmosphere when they teach mindfulness in class. Students feel it. That’s how we develop relationships. Mindful Schools’ trainers have developed the K-12 mindfulness curriculum that focuses on its benefit. They have visuals that show two wings of a bird, one as focus and another self-regulation. This curriculum guide is a rather simple implementation for the classroom and shows how it is not just one more thing to do as burden. When every teacher and staff intentionally apply mindfulness in their practice, we cultivate a safe and pleasant school culture. A mindful learning community strengthens students’ critical thinking and observation skills. It is also true that teachers with mindfulness convey effective messages in the current social emotional skills programs, such as Love and Logic and PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports). A structural training in Professional Development must happen in order to create the mindful school community.
Families can benefit from learning about mindfulness. It can be a tool for growing positive social emotional skills at home. We can invite parents to a mindfulness workshop with Love and Logic parenting class. Mindful parents utilize Love and Logic strategies more effectively. School staff must collaborate with families to create and share clear knowledge about mindfulness. We can ask PTSA for the sponsorship when we invite a mindfulness speaker. As they gain their knowledge of mindfulness, they, too, become aware of the present moment.
Now you realize it doesn’t have to be only summer time to notice your breaths. As soon as you are aware of exhaustion, breathe in. And out. Enjoy one moment at a time. When students find out that they are capable to be aware of present moment, they will start using mindfulness as a tool to manage themselves and focus. Learning will become their joy.